The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
First Sunday of Advent
December 3, 2017
Sophocles the Greek called it, “the divine madness.” During the Civil War, when a veteran would lose his mind after combat, they would call it, “soldier’s heart.” In World War I it was, “shell shock.” In World War II it was, “combat fatigue.” After Vietnam, and Iraq and Afghanistan, we have a new term for it – PTSD. Post-traumatic stress disorder. When a soldier, or actually anybody who undergoes a traumatic and stressful event, has continuous mental trauma triggered by that event. (Loosely paraphrased from Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s “The Vietnam War)
I had a teacher in high school who was a Vietnam veteran who suffered from PTSD. He told us that one day he was walking by the band hall when, suddenly, a snare drum starting playing. Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap. His ears heard a snare drum. His mind heard a machine gun. Immediately, he was back in Vietnam. It wasn’t the band hall, it was the jungle. He jumped behind a wall to take cover, his heart was racing. He said it took a moment for him to get his mind straight. To refocus on where and when he was. He was not back in Vietnam, he was at school. That wasn’t a machine gun, it was a drum. That’s PTSD.
Stress, anxiety, the fallout from trauma – these are all very real. We act and react on account of the stresses, the anxieties, the traumas that we had yesterday and have today. Like my high school teacher our hearts start pounding, our minds start racing, and our imaginations run wild with stress, with anxiety, with all our past trauma.
I wish, I wish we could get over it. I wish I could get over it. Like how we used to tell soldiers just to get over it. But that will not do, because what gets our hearts pounding and minds racing is our fear. Our gut level fear.
Instead, I can stand here and tell you that you are not alone. You are not alone. This should not come as a surprise to anyone.
You are not alone because our Christian ancestors have been there before, too. They too had anxiety, stress, and fears. Remember, the ancient world of the first century was a traumatic place. Their news cycle was easily as absurd and traumatic as ours. Put yourself for a moment in the place of one of those first Christians. Jesus is crucified and is raised again around 33 A.D. A traumatic experience to be sure. Then one of their first deacons, Stephen, is stoned to death. Soon after that, there are widespread persecutions of Christians. They are killed, tortured, because they worship Jesus as Lord instead of the emperor. Speaking of emperors, there is trauma and confusion there, too. Emperor Caligula wants to invade Britain but instead just takes seashells as prisoners, because he’s absolutely out of his mind. Emperor Nero burns the city of Rome to the ground so that he can build himself a bigger palace. But, conveniently, and like all too many dictators, he blames the Jews for starting the fire and persecutes them. This uproar sets off a new round of civil wars in the Roman Empire, and in one year of backstabbing and conniving, Rome has four separate emperors. The Jews living in Jerusalem also start a war against the Roman Empire. They are crushed by General Titus, who marches into Jerusalem with his Roman legion, and burns the Jewish Temple to the ground in 70 A.D. Just as Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”
That’s a lot of trauma in just forty years. Imagine if you were one of those first Christians. Imagine the PTSD. Every time a soldier walks by, your heart starts racing with the memory of friends you have seen executed. Every time you see a crowd gathering a pile of stones, you would have flashbacks of your beloved brother Stephen. Every time you hear about a new Roman emperor, you start worrying about what that crazy dude might just do. Trauma. Stress. Anxiety.
But if you’re one of those disciples, you might also think back to the words of Jesus. You would take a moment, gather yourself, let your heart start beating a slower. Take a little bit deeper breath. And hear again what our Lord Jesus said: “in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”
Some people think these words from Jesus are about the end of the world. These words are often used by charlatans to calculate the “end times.” A cosmic, cataclysmic end of the world – sun darkened, stars falling, powers shaken. I do not think that Jesus is talking about the end of the world. Jesus is not talking about the cataclysmic end of the space-time universe. No, Jesus is using cosmic imagery to describe the trauma, the stress, the anxiety that the Christians will soon experience in this world. This is not about the end of the world in a cosmic sense, this is about the end of the world as the disciples knew it. We say, “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.” Well, you couldn’t, and I hope you wouldn’t. It’s colorful, expansive language to describe the reality of the stress you are going through. Jesus talks about the powers being shaken and the sun going dark because it will seem to those first Christians that no power is stable, that the light of their homeland has gone out, that everything is falling apart. Jesus wants his disciples to be ready for the trauma, and then for the post-traumatic stress that is surely to follow.
In other words, what Jesus is giving to his disciples here is pre-traumatic stress training. Jesus is saying to them that the whole world is going to come apart within a generation. In the next forty years, everything will be torn down. Your loved ones will die. Your rulers will be crazy. They are going to destroy you and take everything you have. He wants them to know that the whole world is going to be ripped apart. In the midst of all that, Jesus tells them, keep awake. Stay alert. Stay close to Jesus. Jesus is preparing his disciples, getting them ready.
Getting us ready. To prepare us for the days of suffering ahead. The sun went dark when you got that phone call with that diagnosis. The moon stopped giving its light after you couldn’t pay that bill. The stars were falling from heaven when, no matter how hard you work, there is always more work to do and there is never enough time to do it. The powers in the heavens were shaken when the rulers of this world took you for everything you had.
What Jesus said to those first disciples, he says to us. Keep awake. Keep awake. Do not allow the stress and the trauma and the anxiety of this life rule your life. Take the lesson of that first generation of Christians to heart. Rulers will come go. Generations will rise and fall. It will even seem that heaven and earth will pass away. But the words of Jesus will not fail. What will sustain us is the love that we have for each other, the love that God has for us. That love will not pass away. Trauma and anxiety and stress are sure to come. The sun will be darkened, the stars will fall from heaven, the powers will be shaken – but your faith, your faith in the Lord Jesus will not be shaken. You will take a deep breath, your heart will stop pounding, and you will remember that Jesus is with you. Like soldiers suffering PTSD, a condition that will never go away, our trauma, and stress, and anxiety will never go away. But we can cope with it by staying awake, by keeping alert, by staying close to Jesus.
And this bring us to Advent. In Advent, we hear again the urgent call of Jesus – stay awake. As the days grow shorter and the nights grow longer, the temptation to sleep sets in. As it seems that nothing is changing, that rulers are only out for themselves, when it seems that the world is coming undone, that God is far off – Jesus calls us to stay awake. And no matter how stressful, how anxious, how traumatic the world is to us, our purpose remains the same – to keep alert, and stay faithful to Jesus.